After being disappointed with the recent crop of werewolf movies I’ve reviewed, I was admittedly reluctant to see Howl, the second film for effects designer turned director Paul Hyett. Hyett’s previous effects work included work on Neil Marshall’s The Descent and Doomsday. In fact, some reviewers have pegged Howl as the best werewolf film since Marshall’s Dog Soldiers. Hell, there’s even a cameo by Dog Soldiers’ Sean Pertwee in this film! Needless to say, approaching this film with an objective mindset wasn’t going to be easy. However, after seeing the film myself, I can see why reviewers have been singing its praises.
Overlooked and under-appreciated train guard Joe Griffin (Ed Speleers) is weary from his extra shift on the red-eye Alpha Track service to Eastborough, which was thrust upon him by his newly-promoted jerk supervisor. The passengers treat him like crap, and his only source of refuge is Ellen (Holly Weston), who is working the catering for the trip. Things go from bad to worse when during a sudden stop to deal with a deer caught in the wheels of one of the cars, the train is attacked by what they think is a bear. That is, until it starts howling.
Like some of the films by effects gurus turned directors, a big strength in Howl is its creatures. Hyett’s werewolves opt to go the bipedal route like Marshall’s lycanthropes, but are far more gruesome in appearance, trading in the sleek look for muscled brutality. The heads aren’t so much wolf-like, but instead look like the intermediary transformation makeup for The Howling’s Eddie Quist. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest fan of this look, but opinions aside, Hyett definitely pulled off a convincing set of creatures that thanks to the quick cuts, look and move with frightening speed and power. The creatures are only a part of the whole look of the film. The dingy, claustrophobic and often dark interiors of the train are absolutely perfect for generating tension and scares, which Hyett uses to great effect. Even when the passengers make their way out of the train, there’s still a sense of isolation and claustrophobia within the woods, which again is so wonderful to see and feel.
As much as I’m hesitant to use Dog Soldiers as another comparison point, one of the things that made that film so enjoyable was its cast and their acting. And really, the same goes for Howl, as almost everyone involved turns in some great performances. Speleers fits the overlooked yet immediately likeable ordinary joe in, uh, Joe (sorry) perfectly. You empathize with him as he’s being condescended towards and mocked by everyone around him, yet he manages to rise above and take the reigns when needed. Elliot Cowan is the resident ass and womanizer on the train as Adrian, a loathsome banker who attempts a mutiny and pays for it. Shauna Macdonald is also great as Kate, an aggressive businesswoman who is more than a match for Adrian. I absolutely love her “Are you sh*tting me?” expressions. Calvin Dean provides the comic relief as the football fan with indigestion, and while I didn’t care much for the character, Dean was able to work with it.
Not everything is great about Howl. Some of the characters, while starting off strong, tend to fall by the wayside and aren’t developed enough as the rest. Holly Weston’s Ellen is an example of this. While you warm up to her, when compared to Shauna Macdonald’s performance and character, Weston simply wasn’t given enough to work with as Ellen. Also, the film feels a bit more generic than Dog Soldiers, attempting to appeal to a wider range of filmgoers with its familiar cliches in story and character. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I can appreciate the decision to make it as such. Still, part of me wishes that there was a little more to set it apart. Lastly, while the creature and gore effects were top-notch, there was some blatantly obvious CGI in the form of animating the werewolves’ faces, particularly in the snarling. They’re quick shots, but it just looked so inorganic when compared to the rest of the effects. It’s like the animatronics weren’t included or something.
So, with all the comparisons by myself and other reviewers, is Howl the best werewolf film since Dog Soldiers? In many ways, yes. Both sport some great characters, great effects work and deliver on scares. However, Marshall put enough twists on his film to make it truly stand out, whereas Hyett plays it safer. Again, not a bad thing, since both casual horror fans and those looking for something more in their werewolf films can enjoy this one. Either way, it’s definitely worth a watch, if not for the creature effects, but for the motley crew of characters battling the werewolves. There’s enough here that will make it a worthwhile watch for many werewolf fans, and horror fans in general.